Carson’s Commentary: What does ‘Gaetzgate’ mean for the Florida GOP?

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In this April 14, 2021 file photo, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., questions witness during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Former local tax collector Joel Greenberg has been charged with trafficking a minor, stalking a political opponent, producing fake IDs, identity theft, embezzlement and bribery. But it’s his friendship with Gaetz that is attracting the most attention now as federal investigators have launched a sex trafficking probe into the Republican congressman from the Florida Panhandle. Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo.

“We’re in my state now. This is Trump, DeSantis, Gaetz country, and it will never be illegal to have a good time in the state of Florida!” 

Those were the words spoken by Rep. Matt Gaetz last December to the thousands of conservative students gathered inside Palm Beach County Convention Center. As a witness to Gaetz’s speech, I can confirm he only got wilder from there. One young woman sitting near me described Gaetz’s spectacle as “crackhead energy.” 

Fast forward four months, and the representative for Florida’s 1st Congressional District — which consists of the western edge of the state’s Panhandle — has found himself in some serious hot water. On March 30, The New York Times reported the Department of Justice had opened an investigation into whether Gaetz engaged in sexual acts with a 17-year-old girl and paid her to travel with him. 

Obviously, sex with a teenager is enough of an issue. But if the latter allegation is true, Gaetz would have violated federal sex trafficking laws, which make it illegal to coerce a minor into crossing state lines for sex in exchange for money or other valuables. Gaetz’s penchant for breaking rules should come as no surprise though — this is a man who received 17 traffic tickets between 1999 and 2014. 

Why should you care? Well, the so-called “Gaetzgate” scandal (the name derived from a poorly-aged Gaetz tweet) could have massive implications on the Republican Party’s near future, both in Florida and nationwide. The Sunshine State is a hotbed for Republican activity. As its population has surpassed that of New York to become the third largest in the country, Florida is poised to pick up more electoral votes for the 2024 presidential election when the congressional maps are redrawn later this year. Given recent voter demographic trends, this essentially ensures no Republican can win the White House without Florida. 

Among the millions who have contributed to Florida’s population increase is former President Donald Trump. Trump officially relocated from New York City to his Palm Beach estate in 2019, and subsequently registered Florida as his home state with the Federal Election Commission for his 2020 presidential campaign. (Despite losing the election, he won Florida by a greater margin than in 2016.) 

Since Trump joined Gaetz down South, both have seemingly met bitter ends in politics. Trump faced a second impeachment trial for his (debated) role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, while Gaetz’s expulsion from Congress is now more than a possibility. Clearly both situations are bad looks for the Republican Party, but there is one Florida Man who might just swoop in and save the day… 

I am talking about none other than Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has received national attention — both positive and negative — for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though DeSantis has not handled the pandemic perfectly (no governor has), I believe we must consider  that Florida has the nation’s second-oldest population; 20.5% of Floridians were 65 or older in 2018. Despite this fact, the state has maintained middle-of-the-road statistics with regard to COVID-19 death and positivity rates per capita. Yes, Florida’s warm weather may help in the sense it reduces the mass indoor congregations associated with COVID-19 spikes this winter, but DeSantis’ strategy of deferring decisions to local officials delivers a direct blow to the “state lockdowner” narrative (cough cough, Andrew Cuomo).[Text Wrapping Break] 

DeSantis’ status as an early 2024 presidential frontrunner is also worth noting. At the Conservative Political Action Conference back in February, 21% of respondents to the annual straw poll named DeSantis as their preferred 2024 candidate. This total was second to President Trump, but DeSantis and Trump were the only candidates who received more than 10% of attendee support. With his rise continuing, we can only wonder how the downfall of Trump and potential downfall of Gaetz could affect DeSantis’ White House bid in the long run. 

But back to a fundamental question: Should Gaetz resign? Many legislators have publicly called for this, but I say not yet. We must assume the Panhandle’s congressman is innocent until court evidence suggests otherwise, but the severity of the allegations against him cannot be ignored. This is precisely the approach taken by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who I believe has done a fine job walking the line between addressing Gaetzgate and protecting Gaetz’s right to fair treatment under the House Ethics Committee. 

Leave it to me to spend my final column of the school year rambling about three Florida Men. But now that I have finished, I would like to wish all my readers an enjoyable and fulfilling summer. I’ll be back in September to discuss whatever hell breaks loose in the next five months. 

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